El Paso’s PBS station, KCOS Channel 13, nearly went under last year and the year before that, but the good news is they’re back in the black after some painful budget cuts.
Emily Martin Loya has been the general manager of KCOS since last October. At 32, she is the youngest GM at a Public Broadcasting System station, and she knows how important it is for the station to turn more of her age group into fans and contributors.
Loya’s $45,000 salary makes her the lowest-paid GM by far, but she says that’s OK because she’s not alone.
“It’s not just me as a staff member who’s not paid what she’s worth, it’s the entire staff,” at KCOS, she said.
Other cities have seen their PBS station go under. Waco lost its station, KWBU, in 2010 because of a lack of community support, and it’s not looking good for the Lower Rio Grande Valley station in Harlingen.
“How ridiculous would it be for our community to lose its PBS station?” Loya said. “It would be humiliating, for one thing.”
The circuitous route that brought her to El Paso began in a two-stoplight town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, took her to Bolivia as a college student, to working in Juárez and then to Boston with AmeriCorps.
“During that year in Juárez, I met a boy,” she said. “It’s always a boy or the military that brings you to El Paso, isn’t it?”
She went to work for United Way as its first community engagement coordinator and was recruited away by New York Life. Despite the high salary, she felt something was missing.
So she took a big pay cut for the marketing job at KCOS in 2013. A year later, a friend urged her to apply for the open GM position.
“I said I don’t have any TV experience, and she said, ‘We need a non-profit person because we need to raise money,’” Loya said. “I was, like, let’s talk about that.”
The station was in terrible financial straits then, but no one’s talking about turning off the lights today.
Loya wants to change the station’s approach to fundraising by getting away from urging viewers to donate in exchange for thank-you gifts. She prefers the public radio pitch to give because they love what PBS does.
KCOS viewers tend to be young or old – children watching educational TV in the morning and the over-50 crowd watching at night.
That’s a small crowd to lean on for the $800,000 the station needs to raise each year to cover the local share of its $1.3 million budget. Loya would like to broaden the station’s appeal and support.
“Something our community needs to know is that KCOS is a community organization, not just a TV station,” she said.
At her office in EPCC’s Administrative Services Center, Loya talked about where the station’s been, where she hopes to take it and why its signal went dead last month.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: Public television has its detractors who contend there’s no reason to use taxpayer money for programming the private sector can do. What does PBS provide that commercial TV doesn’t?
What about education? PBS kids content is almost half of our schedule. It’s in partnership with the Public Broadcasting Corporation and the Department of Education. Compare PBS kids content for its educational value and focus, the curriculum and the online and digital resources behind it to a Disney Junior or a Nick Junior and you would laugh.
Then there’s the independent journalism. Look at “PBS NewsHour.” It’s very straight with no slant. Even more so, look at “Frontline.” Who would fund “Frontline” in commercial media? The reality is we don’t even get corporate funders for “Frontline” because it’s too edgy. But society is better for having “Frontline” on the air.
Q: How many people watch KCOS?
We reach around 200,000 people a week in households in El Paso and Las Cruces. There’s no measurement of Juárez. If you think about it, that makes us the non-profit that reaches the most people in our community.
Q: What are your viewers’ favorite shows?
“Downton Abbey” or anything “Masterpiece” in primetime, and you can’t forget almost 12 hours a day we’re showing kids content. When I go out, so many people tell me they grew up on “Sesame Street” or they learned English through “Sesame Street.”
Q: Top kids show?
Still “Sesame Street.” There was a Washington Post story recently about research that found that the learning on “Sesame Street,” whether it’s literacy or math skills, is equal to the interactive learning they’re getting from preschool.
Q: Who are KCOS viewers, who are its supporters?
We have a huge viewing segment with kids and parents. Then you dip, because for ages 10 to 45 or 50, you’ve got a very, very low percentage of those people watching. The 50-plus crowd is our main viewership and 65-plus is our main donor base. For most PBS stations, the average donor age is between 65 and 70 and ours is the same.
Q: When is your most popular time? I’m guessing Sunday nights during “Masterpiece Theatre.”
Q: What is your average viewership on a night like that?
I’d say 40,000 to 50,000 here in El Paso.
Q: How many donors do you have?
About 1,500. Once it was 5,000, so I’m working towards that number.
Less than 1 percent of our viewers donate.
Q: Why so few?
Among other things, I think a lot of people think we’re funded by EPCC or UTEP or getting all this money from the state or the government, when in reality $1.35 per every American goes to public media overall – TV and radio.
People think it’s free and don’t understand that we really need their support for this community-owned station.
Q: What do you pay in dues to PBS and what is your annual budget?
Dues are $450,000 and the budget is $1.3 million. The PBS dues are paid mostly out of the $670,000 we get from the federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Every PBS station gets its share based on demographics. That is, who you serve and how much money you raise locally. So the more you raise locally, the more you get returned to you.
Everything else, we’ve got to raise here – about $800,000.
Q: That’s a lot of money.
It is – $800,000 is the line in the sand that every PBS station is supposed to raise just to keep the doors open.
We’re one of the smallest stations budget-wise in the nation. We have about the same budget as Midland, but we serve a lot more people.
Q: Where does the money you raise come from?
We get about $250,000 from membership contributions. And a chunk of what we raise is simply for our space here at El Paso Community College.
We’re not part of EPCC but, technically, we don’t pay rent. They write us a check for $217,000 and we write them back a check for $217,000 in exchange for our rent, janitorial and all.
We air some of their programs. We give them marketing on air. So, it’s like a marketing contract.
Q: The last few years have been bumpy for KCOS. We even heard the station was on the verge of going under last year. You had a big story to tell the community but didn’t really tell it.
It’s a huge story to tell. How ridiculous would it be to have our community lose its PBS station?
Q: What happened?
Our station was in a huge crisis financially. It was running a quarter million dollar deficit for four years running. When I got here, the savings were about gone. They were talking about closing down.
In order to close the deficit, we had to cut staff. I don’t have a marketing person. A TV station without a marketing person! We had two engineers and have one now. We have 10 people and everyone wears a lot of hats.
Q: How are things now?
We are definitely still in a rebuilding phase and having to rebuild our donor base because it wasn’t taken great care of. It takes time to rebuild trust and I feel that’s what I’m doing here.
Q: The station lost the trust of its donors? What did you mean?
The big thing was people would pledge for their gifts and it would take them six months or more to get them their gift. They also ran pledge shows all the time. We still run a lot of pledge shows, but I’m working on ways to cut that back.
When I got here, they were not only running the four seasonal pledge drives that most PBS stations run with the GM, board members and community volunteers. They were also running what we call virtual pledges. All the money stays local.
But overnight, it was all-the-time pledge from midnight to 7 a.m. for 12 months straight and almost every weekend running virtual pledge shows.
Q: You’re talking about those shows that offer DVDs or CDs of old rock ‘n’ roll or jazz.
Right. It works, but it’s a dwindling piece. Let’s be honest, it’s focused on an older generation. How many people my age buy DVDs and CDs? I don’t. In 10 or 15 years, will anyone buy DVDs and CDs? I don’t know the answer to that but it definitely won’t be more than what we’re doing right now.
On top of it, PBS as a system has created a sense of transactionalism – it’s all about the gift.
So people are only giving when they see a show they really want the gift for. It feels like an infomercial. But the gift is supposed to be an extra little perk for giving, like the little radio drive.
Q: You want to change that?
I’m definitely for changing the system. But you don’t move a ship quickly and definitely not a big one like PBS. We’re part of a pilot program working on how to do pledging in a more mission-driven way around programs that are part of the typical schedule, like “Antiques Roadshow,” “Nature” or “Nova.” It’s not easy because we’ve trained people to wait for the gifts.
Q: For every dollar you raise, how much goes to the station and how much to the promoter?
About 80 percent goes to the station, depending on the gift. It’s pretty reasonable, but I’d love to be where radio is, where everyone just pledges because they love the content. They don’t do thank-you gifts anymore.
Q: How are your finances now?
We have a flat budget. We’re paying our bills and making more than we spend, which is good. But we’re still running on a shoestring, so we need to raise significantly more so we can be at the staff level we need to be and expand our services.
We’re doing more in grants, but we haven’t landed any huge ones yet. We’re expanding our corporate underwriting, which is business support and sponsorship. Down the road, we’ll be working on getting more major donors. We don’t really have a game plan for major giving, so that’s a big miss.
Q: Do other PBS stations have endowments to fund operations?
Yes, a lot of stations have really big endowments, like WGBH Boston and WNET in New York. We’re moving in a stable direction, and hopefully in the next 12 months or so, we’ll start building an endowment piece.
Q: What’s new at KCOS?
Quite a few things. Something our community needs to know is that KCOS is a community organization, not just a TV station. We need to show that. We’re doing that through partnerships and collaboration. Obviously, education is a big part of what we do, and we want it to be a bigger part, especially with children and early childhood education.
We’ve gotten grants to do partnerships with Head Start and to bring PBS characters to our community to host community events, like Thomas the Tank Engine.
We’re also working more in arts and culture. We got a grant to work with “Shakespeare on the Rocks” to do performances of “Romeo and Julietta” in English and Spanish.
We had over 400 people show up in Juárez for “Shakespeare Uncovered” on the only day it snowed last winter. We also did it at three places in El Paso. We are the home for arts and culture. Who else airs arts and culture in our community like a PBS station?
We’ve realized we don’t have to be the creator of content. We can be the convener of content. We fund it, but there’s an application process for local filmmakers and digital storytellers to do that.
It really expands our audience. “Only in El Paso” with digital filmmakers was a great example of that. We crowdfunded it with Destination El Paso. Now, we’re working on year two.
Q: What’s up with your signal? You’ve had some problems lately.
We went down twice in May. The first time, we were in the middle of our live art auction between day one and day two. It was rough. A piece of equipment called an exciter failed and we didn’t have a backup. It took three days to get a replacement, so we were off the air. But we were still on cable.